Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books Read in 2019

January

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer
Alyssa Cole, An Extraordinary Union
Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
Aja Monet, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter
Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal to Noise
Kaoru Mori, Emma, Vol 1
Kaoru Mori, Emma, Vol 2
Sarah Perry, Melmoth

February

Alyssa Cole, A Prince on Paper
Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius
Sangu Mandanna, A Spark of White Fire
Mandeliene Smith, Rutting Season
Susan Tan, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire

March

Alyssa Cole, A Hope Divided
Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology
David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Lauren Layne, Blurred Lines
Lauren Layne, Irresistibly Yours
Lauren Layne, I Wish You Were Mine
Lauren Layne, Made for You
Lauren Layne, Only with You
Lauren Layne, Someone like You
Lauren Layne, Walk of Shame
Jessica Lemmon, Arm Candy
Jessica Lemmon, The Bastard Billionaire
Jessica Lemmon, The Billionaire Bachelor
Jessica Lemmon, The Billionaire Next Door
Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts
Caitlin Starling, The Luminous Dead
Noelle Stevenson, Nimona
Leonie Swann, Three Bags Full

April

Melissa Broder, The Pisces
Sarah Castille, Against the Ropes
Sarah Castille, Fighting Attraction
Sarah Castille, In Your Corner
Alyssa Cole, A Duke by Default
Otara (Noora) Heikkilä, Fortunate Beasts
Noora Heikkilä, Letters for Lucardo
Megan Hunter, The End We Start From
Tiffany Reisz, The Rose
Katie Ruggle, Hold Your Breath
Sally Thorne, 99 Percent Mine
Kris Waldherr, The Lost History of Dreams

May

Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar
P. Djèlí Clark, The Black God's Drums
Alyssa Cole, A Prince on Paper [reread]
Helen Hoang, The Bride Test
Casey McQuiston, Red, White & Royal Blue
Carly Phillips and Erika Wilde, Dirty Sexy Inked
Jordan Rosenfeld, Make a Scene
Karen Russel, Orange World and Other Stories
Ovidia Yu, Aunty Lee's Delights

June

Charlie Jane Anders, All the Birds in the Sky
Uzma Jalaluddin, Ayesha at Last
Sadie Jones, The Snakes
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

July

John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Cristina Rivera Garza, The Taiga Syndrome
Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger
Cadwell Turnbull, The Lesson
Pat Wahler, I am Mrs. Jesse James
Lara Williams, Supper Club

August

Steve Burns, Foreverywhere
Evie Dunmore, Bringing Down the Duke
Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
National Geographic, Almanac 2020

September

Jonathan Levi, The Only Skill That Matters
Helen Oyeyemi, Gingerbread

October

Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, This Is How You Lose the Time War
Cynthia Sally Haggard, Farewell My Life
Susan Higginbotham, The First Lady and the Rebel
Mandy Lee, The Art of Escapism Cooking
Valerie Valdes, Chilling Effect
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Weike Wang, Chemistry

November

Vanessa Kelly, The Highlander's Christmas Bride
Caroline Scott, The Poppy Wife

December

Tessa Bailey, Wound Tight
Mira Lyn Kelly, Hard Crush
Ann Clare LeZotte, Show Me a Sign
Sarah-Jane Stratford, Red Letter Days
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Monday, December 16, 2019

10 Years of Blogging !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Unbelievably, ten years ago today (or so), I started this blog.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

Before then, I was tracking my books on Livejournal, but wanted more conversation about the books I was reading.

I posted a review of The Monsters of Templeton (a book I still think about some ten years later) and ... yeah. I remember thinking it'd be amazing if I could last six months. Then a year.

And somehow, I managed to do this for a decade. !!!!!!!!!!!!1

There are few things I can say I've done consistently for 10 years and I'm feeling pretty proud of myself. Blogging has really changed my life: it's changed how I read, the way I think about my reading and writing, and it's one of my biggest hobbies. (It numbers as one of the first four things people say about me when introducing me to others.)

I can't express how much I appreciate the people I've met through blogging. You all have made this more fun, interesting, meaningful, and fun! It's really the only reason I bother blogging anymore -- the lovely people.

So thank you -- to another 10 years! (??)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Reading Challenge: Read Harder 2020

For 2019, I did two reading challenges: Historical Fiction and Read Harder.

Read Harder changed my reading life.

I had initially rolled my eyes at about a fourth of the requirements, but in the end, every book I was "forced" to read was ultimately really wonderful. I ended up learning something, enjoying more than I anticipated, and was introduced to new authors and ideas. Many of my favorite reads for 2019 were due to Read Harder -- now I feel like I 'get' reading challenges and I'm hooked!

So I'm pretty excited for Read Harder 2020. If you can recommend anything that fits one of these 24 options, let me know! I'm still developing my list.

Read Harder 2020

1) Read a YA nonfiction book
  • An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States for Young People
2) Read a retelling of a classic of the canon, fairytale, or myth by an author of color
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • One Thousand and One Nights by Hanan al-Shaykh
  • Tender by Sofia Samatar
3) Read a mystery where the victim(s) is not a woman
  • A Trace of Deceit
  • A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder
  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead 
  • The Other Americans
  • Thus Was Adonis Murdered 
4) Read a graphic memoir
  • March: Book One
  • Becoming Unbecoming
5) Read a book about a natural disaster
  • Outrun the Moon
  • The Wildlands 
  • The Children's Blizzard 
  • Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
  • Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 
  • The Great Hurricane: 1938
6) Read a play by an author of color and/or queer author
  • SongCatcher: A Native Interpretation of the Story of Frances Densmore by Marcie R. Rendon (finished 6/28/2020)
7) Read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII
  •  
8) Read an audiobook of poetry
  •  Other Words for Home
  • The Poet X

9) Read the LAST book in a series
  • Sangu Mandanna's final book in her Celestial Trilogy
10) Read a book that takes place in a rural setting
  • The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (finished 6/9/2020)
11) Read a debut novel by a queer author
  • Gideon the Ninth 
12) Read a memoir by someone from a religious tradition (or lack of religious tradition) that is not your own
  • We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir 
  • Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots 
  • Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the 'Rules' 
  • Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again
  • Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint 
  • Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun 
13) Read a food book about a cuisine you’ve never tried before
  • The Island Kitchen: Recipes from Mauritius and the Indian Ocean 
  • The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America 
  • tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine 
  • Kaukasis: A Culinary Journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan Beyond
14) Read a romance starring a single parent
  • Rafe by Rebekah Weatherspoon (finished 2/1/2020)
15) Read a book about climate change
16) Read a doorstopper (over 500 pages) published after 1950, written by a woman
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree 
  • The Luminaries 
  • Romantic Outlaws
  • Barkskins
  • The Paying Guests
  • The Starless Sea
  • The Secret History
17) Read a sci-fi/fantasy novella (under 120 pages)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom
  • Binti
  • All Systems Red
18) Read a picture book with a human main character from a marginalized community
  • Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty (finished 1/12/2020)
19) Read a book by or about a refugee
  • The Sympathizer
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing 
  • Salt Houses 
  • Americanah 
20) Read a middle grade book that doesn’t take place in the U.S. or the UK
  • The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani
  • Amal Unbound  
  • The Turtle of Oman
21) Read a book with a main character or protagonist with a disability (fiction or non)
  • What Is Visible: A Novel by Kimberly Elkins
  • So Lucky by Nicola Griffith
22) Read a horror book published by an indie press

23) Read an edition of a literary magazine (digital or physical)

24) Read a book in any genre by a Native, First Nations, or Indigenous author
  • Braiding Sweetgrass







Friday, December 6, 2019

Weekend reads, or hunkering down for winter

We had our first snow earlier this week; for us, it was two days, so heavy that school was cancelled. Unabridged Kid enjoyed himself and had a wildlife cafe for a bit.

Winter is my least favorite season so I'm trying to lean into the hygge by getting cozy when possible: fancy chocolates on chilly nights; cuddling the new kittens, Dash and Lilly; pretty decorations; and of course, books!

This weekend I'll be finishing up three reads for the Historical Novel Society (reviews to come in the spring issue of the magazine): Brett Cogburn's Gunpowder Express; Leanna Renee Hieber's A Sanctuary of Spirits; and Sarah-Jane Stratford's Red Letter Days.

I'm two books short of completing Read Harder 2019 and I am determined to crush it, although I suspect I'll be wrapping up at 11:57 on the 31st. I'm pulling together my top 10 reads for 2019 and it is a very hard list to assemble -- there were SO. MANY standout reads this year.

What are you reading this weekend?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott

Was it so wrong to feel that she had been treated unfairly? That she'd been judged and damned and had not had the right to defend herself?

I stayed up until 1am to finish this novel, set in 1921, following a veteran and a widow of World War I. It had shades of Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock, too: a vague menace stalking our main characters, who were trying to find peace in a Europe looking to neatly memorialize what had happened.


The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott
William Morrow Paperbacks, 2019
Review copy from publisher for blog tour
Historical Fiction reading challenge


I've mostly given up novels set in eitherWorld War I or World War II; I'd read so many that I was feeling like I was getting the same thing over and over. This is Caroline Scott's debut novel, and she manages to not only create a story with the hold-your-breath tension of a domestic thriller, but she also brilliantly (tearfully) evokes the terror and horror of trench combat.

Edie's husband Francis was an amateur photographer listed as missing, presumed dead in 1917. Her brother-in-law Harry swears he saw Francis die in combat. For the most part, Edie has come to terms with the unknowing, until one day she receives a portrait of Francis, sent to her without any note. The Francis she sees in the photograph looks impossibly old, too old to be the man she knew in 1917.

Haunted by his combat experience, and the only of his three brothers to have survived the war, Harry travels through Europe photographing graves and battle sites for families who can't afford to travel to them. Edie has begged him to find the place of Francis' death, a request even more urgent after the arrival of Francis' portrait.

Scott breaks her novel up into three parts -- Harry's search, Edie's search, and Harry's combat experience in 1917. Floating throughout the novel is this idea of what is past, what is present as villages and towns in France struggle to both commemorate the horror and loss from the war as well as move on and grow. Scott uses past tense for the portions in 1917 and present tense for those in 1921, and it brilliantly emphasizes -- and toys with -- what is done and what is unfolding, what we think is certain and what seems flexible.

I haven't read any novels set in the immediate aftermath of World War I, and I loved that Scott explored that time. Imagine having to come up with a way to commemorate the enormous loss of life and resources while also trying to survive! I hate to say I was captivated because that sounds so awful, but I was fascinated by this aspect of post-war life, and it made for a wonderful backdrop for characters who are unable to shed the past so cleanly.

I won't be forgetting this book soon.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Art of Escapism Cooking by Mandy Lee



Look, the only thing I'd like to cook at seven in the morning -- as I lie in bed with residual resentments from the day before and looming despair about the day ahead --is the people who say they love cooking breakfast. Who are these people? I imagine their breakfasts taste like denial buttered up with overcompensating enthusiasm.

Cookbooks are so much more than lists of recipes anymore. Some are really just about the pretty pictures or the personality of their author. Many are attempts to catch a popular trend, usually of the 'diet' variety.

Mandy Lee's cookbook might have mouthwatering pictures and a strong sense of her acerbic personality, but it's also a travel memoir, a biography, a Dear John; or, as the subtitle succinctly summarizes: a survival story.

I'm not sure I've ever really found myself thinking about how well a cookbook meets a political moment, however, until this one. (Which is a shame, because food is so much a part of culture, identity, class, economics, history...) In particular, Lee's comments and thoughts on her experience in China feel prescient given the unfolding protests in Hong Kong. I've never found a cookbook that has perfect matched a revolutionary moment. (Bettina Makalintal's piece in Vice says this all waaaaaay better than I.)


The Art of Escapism Cooking: A Survival Story, with Intensely Good Flavors by Mandy Lee
William Morrow Cookbooks, 2019
Copy from publisher for blog tour


Of Taiwanese heritage, Lee leaves New York City for Hong Kong, and then mainland China, because of her husband's job. The increasing culture shock and change was the catalyst for Lee's blog from which this cookbook was drawn. The recipes are a mix of nostalgic tastes Lee was trying to recreate as well as attempts at particular meals she was craving. As such, it's not an easy cookbook to summarize, but it is one that held my wife and I in thrall. In between her recipes, where many cookbook authors wax about their farms or airy kitchens or the colors of the produce that inspire them, Lee instead shares slices of her frustration, anger, inspiration, and delight of her life in Shanghai.

We're huge cookbook fans, with friends who love cookbooks. We purchase new releases for each other and spend time searching out-of-print ones that seem intriguing or have legendary promise.The usefulness of a cookbook really varies; I don't mind one that's mostly food porn -- great light and dramatic styling -- but my wife and our friends value a cookbook that helps a home cook recreate the specific meals shared. Especially when it comes to dishes and cuisines that depend on technique and unique ingredients.

Lee's cookbook is mouthwatering and slightly terrifying. Her recipes are not a home cook adaptation of a complicated meal; her recipe is the complicated meal. Gorgeous, detailed ramen and other noodle dishes. The pork and crackling burger pictured on the cover. A variety of condiments and sauces that are electrifying and absolutely crucial (garlic confit, yes; her orange chile sambal, yes; fried shallots, dry and wet, yes). In attempting them, we discovered they are worth the effort and the time, as much as any other complicated, delicious meal; the flavors were surprising, intense, and very, very good.

This isn't to say that Lee's cookbook is unapproachable to novice cooks; in fact, Lee's opening breaks down -- with images -- her pantry necessities, the ingredients that some US home cooks might not be completely familiar with. The entire opening section of condiments is a gold mine, as are her egg-based recipes. There's really something for everyone here (even dog lovers: Lee shares her recipes for beloved dogs).

This cookbook is unforgettable, intimidating, and so real. It's really set the bar for future cookbooks, honestly: I want more cookbooks that are honest about the world we're in and the way food is part of that.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

National Geographic's Visual Galaxy

Our burning desire to take those first wobbly steps is rooted in our need to go see for ourselves, to taste and touch the world around us. We learn by exploring., from the Foreword by Col. Chris Hadfield

Of the million reasons I love being a parent to Unabridged Kid, one of the biggies is his hunger to know and learn. Seeing his joy, his awe, and his delight as he discovers something about the world around him is a pleasure I can barely express. Which is why I am so loving these gorgeous coffee table books from National Geographic.


Visual Galaxy
National Geographic, 2019
Source from the publisher for blog tour


Earlier this year I gushed about my sentimental attachment to National Geographic; I'm grateful that they are still sharing the beauty and mystery of our world and beyond.

The Foreword from Col. Chris Hadfield is a short love letter to everyone inspired by the sky and what is just past what we can see; I'm a Hadfield fan already but his brief introduction was genuine, awe-filled, and inspiring.

This book is perfect for my aspiring astronaut as it has giant, gorgeous photos, artistic renderings, diagrams, and other pictures detailing the huge and little mysteries of space.

Everything to springboard someone into a deep dive of research is here: the creation of the universe and our Milky Way; maps of the planets in our solar system, a detailed exploration of the sun, and the things beyond our galaxy.

My pictures don't do justice the wonderful illustrations, which Unabridged Kid pours over. I can't wait until he can read because he'll spend hours with this some more. It's the kind of book I suspect we'll keep in our house for a long time, constantly paged through.

I have reviews coming up of Nat Geo's other coffee table releases for 2019 including their awesome Women, featuring portraiture of women around the world, and their historical timelines one -- all this is to say, if you've a young scientist in your life, one or more of these would be a great addition to their library. I have so many memories of paging through big books like these and I'm excited for my kid to make his own memories doing the same.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Highlander's Christmas Bride by Vanessa Kelly

"Don't think too long, because you're not that charming," Nick said. "She just might choose a nunnery, after all."

Despite my love of romances, I've somehow never gotten onto the Christmas romance train, which is odd because I do love Christmas movies (although I am firmly against Love Actually as either a sentimental holiday tradition or a movie to be liked; but I also believe both Die Hard and Bridget Jones's Diary are Christmas movies so take what you will from this.)

All that to say: Vanessa Kelly's newest has me thinking I need to do some Christmas-themed romance deep diving immediately.


The Highlander's Christmas Bride by Vanessa Kelly
Zebra Books, 2019
Copy from the author for blog tour
Historical Fiction reading challenge


While the plot is familiar -- seemingly-doomed-to-spinsterhood heroine meets brawny bachelor; both smother their interest in the other; random occurrence forces them to consider marriage to save reputations -- Kelly twists and alters enough so that the resulting story is fresh, fun, and romantic.

Donella seems virginal and prim, but has enough experience to know that if she wants to make life choices for herself, joining a convent might be the only way to exert agency. She's too wellborn to elope for love, too valued among her clan and community to trust that love will motivate any suitor.

Logan is a widower whose life in Canada has brought massive prosperity, but he needs support from another clan to further land his business. Offering to escort Donella from the convent to her family keep seems a way to gain the favor he needs. We all can see the romance a mile away and, frankly, that's half the fun plus Kelly completely surprised me with a handful of well-placed variations on the expected. I finished this book with a smile, deeply in love with both Donella, Logan, and their rambunctious families.

In terms of heat, this is more slow burn and low-end rated R: there's a sex scene toward the end but most of the book is build up. Good for those who want less explicit romances in their lives and as Kelly lays out the story and the characters, that sex scene grounds one of the more fun and surprising 'twists' to the story, which was just delightful.

This is the second in Kelly's Clan Kendrick series, but it reads like a standalone quite well. I suppose it "spoils" things from the first book, The Highlander's Princess Bride, but only that the hero and heroine of that book end up together happily so ... is it really a spoiler?

I read this over a few days while inhaling leftover Halloween candy so it pretty much was perfect for this time of year.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Weekend Reads, or readathon-ing it...

Busy weekends upon us, including this one. School open houses, playdates, and birthday parties. Spending time outside, enjoying New England fall when it's not an icy, rainy deluge.

But Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon is tomorrow, and as always, I've signed up in hopes of getting some good reading in. I've a string of books more than half read, and I'd love to finish them during the readathon.

I'm hoping I'll finish up Tarot for Troubled Times, which has given me so much to chew over and freshened up my tarot practice; as well as the absolutely emotionally gripping This Is How You Lose the Time War, which I'm both listening to and reading. It's deeply romantic and wonderfully fantastic, and the language is so good that after I hear the amazing audiobook readers do a chapter or two, I go back and read them to savor. And to my surprise, I'm going to be reading Emily Dickinson's Gardening Life: The Plants and Places That Inspired the Iconic Poet. I'm surprised because I'm not drawn to books about gardening, even if connected to literary figures, but in planning my spring planting, I decided I wanted to replicate the gardens of New England authors. This updated reissue from Timber Press includes a detailed list of Dickinson's garden but is also so readable, I raced through the first few chapters last night without realizing it. I think I might be about to become a gardening nerd.

What are your plans for this weekend? And what are you reading?

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Before she could shoot, a familiar voice boomed from the loudspeakers. "Attend me, worthless muck-eaters. I have come to your inferior outpost to apprehend the human captain Eva the Innocent!"

I erroneously described this as Firefly with a lesbian Mal; but I was only wrong about our main character's sexual identity (pansexual, maybe?). Otherwise, this marvelously fun comedic sci fi takes the best part of shows like Firefly, with a charming crew and a "curmudgeonly" "anti-hero" captain (who is both adorable and heroic), and injects welcome imagination into the ragtag-posse-take-on-enormous-challenges plot line.


Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes
Harper Voyager, 2019
Copy from publisher for blog tour


Captain Eva Innocente loves her ship, La Sirena Negra, and her work: running cargo and passengers around the universe. The book opens with Eva struggling to recapture her most recent order -- a passel of psychic cats -- and so, by page 3, I was literally enamored of everything about this book. That the characters continued to be charming, funny, and interesting -- her sweet, concerned engineer Vakar and her tough and badass doctor Pink (who gave me serious Gina Torres-as-Zoe vibes) -- as well as the secondary folks, like the completely bananas fish-faced emperor who is obsessed with adding Eva to his harem.

Adding to this delightful chaos is the very serious problem Eva is trying to solve without involving her crew: a twisted, murderous syndicate known only as The Fridge has kidnapped her sister, and Eva must do dirty deeds for The Fridge to free her. Valdes is marvelous at sketching a vibrant universe without tons of clunky exposition or infodumps, and the story races along with some serious emotional backbone to it. It's funny and bittersweet in equal part. And it's not a world of white humans and various aliens, which is even more refreshing!

This will be the first book in a series, but it ends very satisfyingly, so don't be fearful of a frustrating cliff-hanger. But pick it up for nostalgia of Firefly or for a Guardians of the Galaxy readalike. Intergallactic adventure, conspiracy, and a teeny tiny bit of a romance: yum!

Monday, October 21, 2019

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham

"But you were right, in one respect. Those bullets made us what we are."

Susan Higginbotham's newest novel takes the familiar Civil War story of brother-versus-brother and offers a fresh, sad version: sisters Mary and Emily Todd. Mary Todd would marry Abraham Lincoln while Emily would marry Hardin Helm, a devoted Confederate who would eventually become a General in the Confederate Army.


The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019
Source from publisher on behalf of blog tour
Reading Challenge: Historical Fiction


From a Kentucky slaveholding family, the Todd siblings were bound to be torn apart by the Civil War, but moreso when headstrong Mary sets her sights on the humble Abraham Lincoln and Emily on dashing Hardin Helm. Higginbotham shares both stories with a tender sympathy, even with both women behave in petty or cruel ways. Initially both families were friendly, with admiration between Abraham Lincoln and Hardin Helm, until war forced sides to be chosen. In Higginbotham's hands, Helm sides with the Confederacy because of honor -- a vague declaration that results in my only real quibble with this book.

For good and for bad, Higginbotham avoids delving deeply into the personal beliefs of either Todd sister, especially Emily; so as the war rages, it was hard for me to understand why Emily behaved as she did. The Todds found themselves as oddities in Kentucky where most of their neighbors were pro-Union, and it's probably safe to assume that meant they were devoted Confederates. I think it's hard to make the values of the Confederacy palatable, and so Emily's philosophies and attitudes are presented in what felt to me as a watered down manner. But even Mary felt at arm's length at times: it was unclear to me when her feelings about abolition changed, for example, or if she was always in favor of the choices Pres. Lincoln made.

The Civil War is a gripping and terrifying setting for any novel, and Higginbotham evokes the horror well, especially when both Mary and Emily were distant from much of the blood of battle. Constrained by history, Higginbotham manages to find ways to share the emotional bond between the sisters, including the affection their spouses had for each other, and the liberties Higginbotham takes in her story are realistic (and detailed in her Author's Note).

At 400 pages, this book could feel like a brick but it fairly races; and Higginbotham nails the important emotional moments. I teared up when both sisters lost their spouses, and their eventual reunion was bittersweet. I was curious how Higginbotham would handle the rumored 'insanity' of Mary Todd, and she did so in a way that was deeply satisfying.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Interview with Susan Higginbotham

I am so excited to share my interview with novelist Susan Higginbotham. Although she might be most well known for her novels set in the UK, she's started exploring 19th-century America in her more recent books, including her newest, The First Lady and the Rebel. It's the gripping story of Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and her beloved sister Emily, as they find themselves at the opposite ends of the Civil War. My review comes on Thursday but prepare for major squees. I loved this book!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

Because I've been writing since I was a child, I can't remember, but I can tell you that it likely had something to do with cats. My first attempt at a historical novel, however, was when I was in junior high and started to write a novel about a family of orphans living through the Blitz. (Clearly, given the current vogue for World War II novels, I was way ahead of my time.) It didn't have much plot, as I recall, nor did it have much history, and I eventually gave it up for a contemporary novel about teens living in the Lower East Side of New York, which as I recall was set in the 1970s but was heavily redolent of the 1940s. It was pretty bad (S. E. Hinton I'm not), but it gave me something to do during study hall.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I would say my main writing ritual is procrastination.

Was The First Lady and the Rebel the original title of your book?

Yes, it was! I was shocked because the publisher changed my last few titles. In fact, I was so certain it would be changed that I just titled the folder in my computer the generic "Mary and Emily."

As you were writing The First Lady and the Rebel, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I wouldn't say anyone surprised me in the course of writing, because I knew both of my main characters pretty well when I began the novel, but I did learn some things about my characters that surprised me when I was researching. For instance, Emily Todd Helm was in most respects very much a woman of the Old South, but in 1911 she welcomed a suffragette meeting to its convention in Louisville. And I did find myself liking Mary a lot more as the novel progressed than I had at the outset.

Your previous novels took place in medieval and Tudor England; but more recently, you’ve moved to 19th century American history. What inspired the shift in era and place? Are there any thematic similarities between those eras?


Initially, I made the change for purely practical reasons--I had proposed a novel set in Tudor England just about the time the Tudor craze was waning, so having read a nonfiction book about Mary Surratt, I made the proposal that became my novel Hanging Mary. After researching and writing that, I found that I really enjoyed writing about the nineteenth century. For one thing, there's a wealth of primary source material from that century, much of it readily accessible, and for another, it's the period in which my own literary heroes--Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen--flourished, so I felt very much at home there. It also helped that I moved to Maryland and was within an easy drive of so many historical sites.

One thematic similarity is that both the medieval/Renaissance period and the nineteenth century were times of social change, internecine conflict, and upheaval, and, though we tend to overlook it, progress. Of course, they had a long way to go, but then so do we.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I enjoy traveling (especially when I can combine fun and research), spending time with my family, collecting old photographs, and collecting Barbie dolls. And I spend way too much time surfing the Internet.

Read any good books recently?

One of the best books I've read recently was Hallie Rubenhold's The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. As its title suggests, it tells the life stories of the Ripper's five victims, focusing on the women themselves rather than their murders. It's a grim reminder of how bad luck, bad choices, or both could (and still can) catapult a woman from an ordinary middle-class existence to utter destitution.

Another recent favorite is Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, about Dickens' secret mistress. It was published a number of years ago, but somehow, I didn't get around to reading it until recently.

Speaking of secret women, I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Holloway Scott's novel The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, about the enslaved woman who gave birth to two of Burr's children--whose link to the duelist has recently been confirmed by DNA evidence.

Finally, I found Angela Lambert's biography The Lost Life of Eva Braun to be a compelling study of a rather ordinary woman who was drawn, disastrously, to one of the most evil men of our time.

***********************************

My gratitude to Ms Higginbotham for her time and thoughtful responses.

The First Lady and the Rebel by Susan Higginbotham

Publication Date: October 1, 2019
Sourcebooks Landmark
eBook & Paperback; 400 Pages

Genre: Historical Fiction


From the celebrated author Susan Higginbotham comes the incredible story of Lincoln's First Lady

A Union's First Lady
As the Civil War cracks the country in two, Mary Lincoln stands beside her husband praying for a swift Northern victory. But as the body count rises, Mary can't help but fear each bloody gain. Because her beloved sister Emily is across party lines, fighting for the South, and Mary is at risk of losing both her country and her family in the tides of a brutal war.

A Confederate Rebel's Wife
Emily Todd Helm has married the love of her life. But when her husband's southern ties pull them into a war neither want to join, she must make a choice. Abandon the family she has built in the South or fight against the sister she has always loved best.

With a country's legacy at stake, how will two sisters shape history?

About the Author

Susan Higginbotham is the author of seven historical novels, including Hanging Mary, The Stolen Crown, and The Queen of Last Hopes. The Traitor’s Wife, her first novel, was the winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and was a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book wards. She writes her own historical fiction blog, History Refreshed. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in Maryland with her family.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Farewell My Life by Cynthia Sally Haggard

The war had been over for less than four years, and Berlin was full of amputees begging on the streets, of gaunt young men startling at the slightest thing.

This is a splashy, dramatic historical novel that reads like a mix of penny dreadfuls, 1980s Joan Collins romances, and any number of thrillers. Mixing a tumultuous, intriguing setting -- Europe in 1921 and 1922, then a jump to 1938 -- with a dysfunctional family saga, this book is like a froofy cocktail in a bubble bath: a little excessive but oh-so good.


Farewell My Life by Cynthia Sally Haggard
Self Published, 2019
Copy provided by author as part of blog tour
Read Harder 2019


What I so appreciated and enjoyed in this book was the mix of expected and surprising in the story. I've read many pre-war historical novels and any number of gifted-heroine-exposed-to-the-world coming-of-age stories, but Haggard picked unique details that made this story new. The heroine at the heart of this novel is Grace, an Italian-American woman with a gift for the violin. Her mother, an Italian immigrant, made a life for Grace and her sister Violet by being a mistress and courtesan, a lifestyle choice Grace and Violet both appreciate and revile. A tall glass of cold, dark, and handsome shows up and plunges the family into turmoil with his obsessive interest in Grace and equally obsessive dislike for her mother.

From this dramatic start, we follow Grace as she attempts to pursue her dream of becoming a concert violinist. Beholden to those with wealth, surrounded by those damaged by World War I, and impacted by family secrets she struggles to uncover, Grace tries to find her own happiness on her own terms. Berlin in 1922 provides a salacious backdrop for an orphaned teen to come into her own. Like I said earlier, this plot is outrageous but in a Sidney Sheldon/Joan Collins/Kathryn Harvey manner: just verging on the unbelievable but not tipping over. It's absolutely perfect for when you want something fun, dramatic, and ohemgee-did-that-just-happen?-ish. And while it clocks in at 586 pages, the length is enough that it's like reading a miniseries rather than a brick tome.

My only critique about this book is that there are places where it shows that this is a self-published novel: passages are repeated verbatim in multiple chapters, and profanities are sometimes obscured (usually with an asterisk replacing one letter, which doesn't seem appropriate for a finished book, and doubly so when not all profanities are treated this way). Now and then there's an errant word that should have been caught in editing, and at one point (maybe more) the font and formatting switch from the rest of the book (and not for, as far as I can tell, any narrative reason).

As we head into the autumn and the season of family-oriented holidays, consider keeping this one in your back pocket (metaphorically) when you want to escape -- and bask in having a family far less treacherous than our girl Grace.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Only Skill That Matters by Jonathan Levi

But the truth is that while it's great to have enthusiasm for learning, enthusiasm without planning cna do more harm than good.

The subtitle of this book -- "The proven methodology to read faster, remember more, and become a superlearner" -- immediately attracted me. I usually only read one or two nonfiction books in a year but wish I read more, especially for personal and professional development. Never mind my perpetual yearning to learn another language or be more adept at some of my woo hobbies.


The Only Skill That Matters by Jonathan Levi
Lioncrest Publishing, 2019
Source via publisher, thanks to TLC Book Tours


I was unfamiliar with Levi and his SuperLearner empire, but found his book to be easy to engage with and understand. At the center of this book is a particular practice of priming one's self for learning and a particular way of studying; and honestly, I wish I had had this book when I was in college. I managed to do well in high school without learning how to learn or study, and college was a real struggle for me. Even if I used Levi's suggestions sloppily, I think I would have done better than I did.

Whether you want to be one of his "superlearners" or not, Levi's book sketches techniques that I think many would find useful. Culling from decades of studies on learning, neuroscience, and other fields related to how we become proficient in something, Levi boils it down to some seemingly simple practices: priming the mind before learning, strengthening our memorization skills, pre-reading, and other tactics to help one learn in a more meaningful, efficient manner.

My only complaint about this book is that I found some of the how-to for the practices to be a bit thin; for example, Levi's section on memory palaces felt very introductory and I started the next chapter assuming there'd be a deep dive in to how one would use it for learning language or a new hobby, but the book skips on to another practice. (Perhaps it really is that simple and I just need to try more!) But other sections felt very robust, and Levi offers free worksheets on his website to help deepen one's learning work.

Like some other kinds of self-help books, this has a slightly hype-y feel to it and is packed with many anecdotes; unlike other self-help books, Levi actually has videos of the interviews he references, so readers can make their own judgments about the people who gush about Levi and his "SuperLearner" practices.

Levi identifies as someone who struggled greatly to learn when younger, so I think this book might appeal to a wide range of folks: already successful students might find new techniques or practices to help them be more effective while those who are curious but aren't good at "school" might find avenues for preparing to learn or study that make it less onerous or stressful. If Levi's writing style and "superlearner" ideas click, he has an enormous community to geek out with and plenty of freebies to keep growing one's abilities.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

National Geographic's Almanac 2020

Breaking bread is the universal bonding mechanism of humanity. At a table, over food, one has no enemies.

National Geographic magazine is a sentimental staple in my life: I grew up on old issues given to me by neighbors and treasured the subscriptions I got for Christmas. I've given up my paper magazines in the name of conservation but am still drawn to that familiar yellow border and the images and knowledge within.


Almanac 2020 by National Geographic
National Geographic, 2019
Copy provided by publisher for TLC Book Tours


I hadn't had an opportunity to pour over any of NatGeo's annual almanacs until offered one for review, and it's an ultra dose of everything the magazine does well, broken up into small, easily consumed tidbits. It's perfect for trivia nerds and kids: most of the topics are covered in two pages or less, broken up with NatGeo's trademark stunning photography or infographics and timelines for context.

Between us, I'm not precisely sure what makes this an 'almanac' in the way I understand an almanac (weather or astrological predictions) but the topics presented are timely and relevant: recent scientific discoveries (importance of sleep), anniversaries (10th anniversary of Ada Lovelace Day), concepts (gender as a spectrum), cutting edge thinkers (immersive journalist Paul Salopek, whose quote opens my review), historical figures (Semiramis), and research that reached mainstream media (brain-gut connection). There's also tons of trivia: the biggest things, deepest things, maps of countries and rows of flags, the kind of stuff I loved stumbling over when paging through encyclopedias.

What I appreciate in this book is what I appreciate about NatGeo's work in general: there is a reverence for the planet and an affection for all people that invites the reader to see themselves as a piece of a larger, interconnected story. This book is great for anyone who enjoys the surprise of stumbling across a tidbit new to them, but also strikes me as a great springboard for homeschool or independent study. Unabridged Kid (4.5 years old) and I have been turning to it almost daily to explore a page of nerdiness or pour over the striking pictures. I anticipate this will become an annual arrival in our house now and it makes me more than a little sentimental to pass on my love for NatGeo to him.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Cover Reveal: Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

I loooooooooooooooooooooooove Nancy Bilyeau's books (here's my review of her most recent, The Blue, which was fascinating!) and I'm so excited she has another book coming out in 2020.

Introducing...



Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau

Publication Date: January 16, 2020
Endeavor Quill

Genre: Historical Fiction



The year is 1911 when twenty-year-old heiress Peggy Batternberg is invited to spend the summer in America’s Playground.

But the invitation to Coney Island is unwelcome. Despite hailing from one of America’s richest families, Peggy would much rather spend the summer at the Moonrise Bookstore where she works voluntarily, than keeping up appearances with Brooklyn socialites and her snobbish, controlling family.

But soon it transpires that the hedonism of Coney Island affords Peggy more of the freedom she has been longing for. For one, she finds herself in love with a troubled pier-side artist of humble means, whom the Batternberg patriarchs would surely disapprove of.

Disapprove they may, but hidden behind their pomposity lurks a web of deceit, betrayal and deadly secrets. And as bodies begin to mount up amidst the sweltering clamour of Coney Island, it seems the powerful Batternbergs can get away with anything…even murder.s

It is up to Peggy to overcome the oppression of her family and clear the name of her vulnerable lover, before she or her beloved sister become the next victims of Dreamland.

Extravagant, intoxicating and thumping with suspense, bestselling Nancy Bilyeau’s magnificent Dreamland is a story of corruption, class and dangerous obsession.

About the Author

"Dreamland" is Nancy Bilyeau's fifth novel of historical suspense. She is the author of the best-selling historical thriller “The Blue” and the Tudor mystery series “The Crown,” “The Chalice,” and “The Tapestry,” on sale in nine countries.

Nancy is a magazine editor who has lived in the United States and Canada. She studied History and English Literature at the University of Michigan. After moving to New York City, she worked on the staffs of “InStyle,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Rolling Stone.” She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the Research Foundation of CUNY and a regular contributing writer to “Town & Country" and "Mystery Scene Magazine."

Nancy’s mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in Forest Hills in the borough of Queens. "Dreamland" is her first novel set in her adopted hometown of New York City.



Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid


Above them bright satellites transited in the darkening sky and the last hawks were returning to the rest of their nests and around them passersby did not pause to look at this old woman in her black robe or this old man with his stubble.

I was interested in the sci-fi element of this novel -- the magical doors -- and the political implications of it -- migration, borders, identity -- but what hooked me by the heart and left me in tears by the end was the beautiful, complicated, painful, oh-so-realistic relationship of Nadia and Saeed.


Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Penguin Random House Audio, 2017
Copy via the library


Hamid reads his own book in audio, and it was a delightful listen. The philosophical musings felt more organic and natural -- like being in Nadia's mind or Saeed's thoughts -- than when I read them, and the inevitability of Nadia and Saeed -- growing together, growing apart -- felt so much more poignant with someone telling me about them.

Nadia and Saeed meet in university, while war tears at their country. By the time their own city is a war zone, they've become a couple, despite their differences. Nadia is bold and adventurous, hungry for life, dressing in conservative black robes for safety. Saeed is romantic and spiritual, religious in a nostalgic way, eager for a home and a nest. Danger and threat throw them together, pull them apart, throw them together again. Hamid manages to keep this plot interesting rather than tiresome because of how interesting and real Saeed and Nadia are, and by juxtaposing their struggles with that of the wider world.

By the end of this book, I genuinely couldn't decide if I wanted them to figure things out or grow as people and move on to find love that would suit them. Hamid gave me an ending that brought tears to my eyes.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Interview with author Cynthia Ripley Miller

I'm excited to share my interview with author Cynthia Ripley Miller; I've just started her newest book, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, a historical novel that is giving me The DaVinci Code-meets-Outlander vibes. Set in 5th century Rome, it's a romantic thriller adventure with fascinating historical elements that have me hooked. If you're intrigued, check out the interview and enter the giveaway at the end of this post.

Cynthia Ripley Miller
Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I prefer writing in the late morning continuing into the early evening. Depending on how much time I have, I'll take a break and step away from it for some fresh air, and then return a little later. When I walk, I listen to music. Often, the words or melody will trigger ideas that I may incorporate into my stories. I'll often write after the dinner hour as well.

Regarding rituals, in my office, I have pictures that represent how I imagine my settings and characters to look. I have talismans that have meaning for me and art prints that convey the heroic and romantic mood. My two favorite prints are The Entombment of Atala by Girodet and Meeting on the Turret Stairs by Frederic William Burton. I also have to admit I like crystals and chimes around me too. I have a spiritual nature.

Was The Quest for the Crown of Thorns the original title of your book?

The working title was A Crown of Thorns, but my publisher felt that the adventure and mystery were best conveyed by implying a mission or quest. I liked it much better. I tend to create simple working titles and then rethink them as the story unfolds.

As you were writing The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The character who has surprised me most is Marcella. She's caught between her dangerous desires and her need to be loved and belong. As a young girl, she's sold by her mother as a concubine to the emperor’s household and gifted to a senator. Her resiliency began to determine her actions as the story unfolded and fell into place naturally. She has grown larger than I first envisioned and has added an extra dimension to the series. I’ve also heard from several male readers that she is their favorite character. ☺

Had you intended to write a series when you began? What are you most interested in exploring over the multiple volumes of your series?

I did envision a series. Some of the writers I respect have written a variety of series, and I felt drawn to this, perhaps, through their influence and because I enjoyed following their characters through adventures as well.

I’m most interested in exploring underlying themes and customs that exist today and how they were viewed in the late ancient world. For example, one theme in the Quest for the Crown of Thorns is divorce. What did it look like in the 5th century, and how did it impact especially women? There existed a Roman legal government and the Christian church, and at times, their views differed on the subject. Also, the laws often changed with a new emperor. In researching this, I found scholars who have studied the laws of 5th century Rome and written about divorce. I found it fascinating. Currently, I’m exploring the theme of religious persecution in 5th century Jerusalem.

Do you have any food, music, smells, or other things that help put you in the mood to write about 5th century Gaul and Rome?

Listening to music will definitely put me in a writing mood: I listen to a wide variety of music, but for me, top mood builders are Celtic music, women singers (Mckinnett, Clarkson, Adele, Furtado, etc.) and the Gipsy Kings are good too. I like to cook and eat, so I have a sense of the food. I've drunk mead, plenty of wine, eaten oysters, and love lamb and roast pig. Yum. My favorite smells, verbena, lavender, rosemary, and basil also existed in the ancient world.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to binge-watch TV series, which are usually historical: The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Outlander, Grantchester, The Last Kingdom, Medici, Marco Polo, and the historical exception, Big Little Lies. I kind of like to exercise (I have a love-hate relationship with it) and I like to walk my dog. It gives me time to think.

Read any good books recently?

I just finished reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante about two little girls who grow up as best friends in post-WWII Naples, Italy. Also, Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor from his series involving the detective Gordianus the Finder.

*** *** ***

About the Author

Cynthia Ripley Miller is a first generation Italian-American writer with a love for history, languages and books. She has lived, worked, and travelled in Europe, Africa, North America and the Caribbean. As a girl, she often wondered what it would be like to journey through time (she still does), yet knew, it could only be through the imagination and words of writers and their stories. Today, she writes to bring the past to life.

She holds two degrees and has taught history and teaches English. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthology Summer Tapestry, at Orchard Press Mysteries.com and The Scriptor. A Chanticleer International Chatelaine Award finalist for her novel, On the Edge of Sunrise, she has reviewed for UNRV Roman History, and blogs at Historical Happenings and Oddities: A Distant Focus

Cynthia has four children and lives with her husband, twin cats, Romulus and Remus, and Jessie, a German Shepherd, in a suburb of Chicago.

On the Edge of Sunrise is the first in the Long-Hair Saga; a series set in late ancient Rome and France and published by Knox Robinson Publishing. The second book in the series, The Quest for the Crown of Thorns, was released in June 2017.

For more information please visit Cynthia Ripley Miller’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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Giveaway!

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away 1 paperback and 2 eBook copies of The Quest for the Crown of Thorns! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 20th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open to the US only. Ebooks are available for international entries.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Crown of Thorns - Tour #3


Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel

I had never known anything but "up" in my career, had never received even one of those formatted no-thank-you slips that successful writers look back upon with triumphant jocularity. And I regarded with pity and disdain the short-sleeved wage slaves who worked in offices. I had no reason to believe life would get anything but better. I had no experience failing.

I'd grabbed this as a possibility for my Read Harder 2019 challenge 19, a book of nonviolent true crime. I ended up counting Bad Blood for it instead, but given the slender length of this book, decided to give it a try.

Le ugh.

What an unappealing person! I don't know what Lee Israel is like in real life -- she does admit she's hard to be around, especially during this period of her life -- but the story she details here wasn't funny or charming to me. I'm kind of judging the people who told her she had to recount these adventures.


Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger by Lee Israel
Simon Schuster, 2018
Copy via public library


When Israel found herself nearly destitute, she began forging letters of 1940s/1950s Hollywood and literary elite. It started with the addition of a fictional post-script but quickly expanded to entirely original missives based on tidbits culled from diaries and other ephemera.

Israel justified it by arguing she needed the money; the "letter writers" were all long deceased; and there was, in her eyes, almost no harm done by her drafting and selling these forgeries. But she escalated to ransacking archives in search of materials for ongoing work and eventually she began stealing real correspondence to sell.

Israel's narrative style is very educated, snobbish, almost, and completely unrepentant. Thin on story; thick on self pity. It was that combination that made this vastly unpleasant. She claims all her stolen items were returned to the appropriate collections and so she doesn't really have anything to feel bad about!

Perhaps the movie will be more fun. Ultimately, this was a bit ole bust for me.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I can love you and want you and still not want that life. I'm allowed, all right, and it doesn't me me a liar; it makes me a man with some infinitesimal shred of self-preservation, unlike you, and you don't get to come here and call me a coward for it.

I believe I'm the only person on the planet who isn't in swoons over this book. About a quarter of the way through the book, I found myself irritated as I read, but I couldn't put my finger on what, precisely, was getting to me since it had all kinds of things that should have been insta-wins.


Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
St. Martin's Griffin, 2019
Copy via my public library


It's weird to say this about a novel that is practically just wish fulfillment but I think this book had too much artifice and exaggeration for me to take it seriously. Everything in this book was extreme: the emotions, the language, the pace, the characters. McQuiston took an element and streeeeeeeeeeeeetched to the point of caricature and then stopped. The result was something that detailed the depressing reality of our current political landscape with bubble gum True Love that didn't quite gel in my eyes.

Alex, the super gay son of the president, falls for a super gay and very closeted British prince. Alex's parents are classic YA Cool Parents (TM), right down to the snarky PowerPoint slides his mother, the US president, makes in the free time she has when not governing (a few of the slides include SEXUAL EXPERIMENTATION WITH FOREIGN MONARCHS: A GRAY AREA; EXPLORING YOUR SEXUALITY: HEALTHY, BUT DOES IT HAVE TO BE WITH THE PRINCE OF ENGLAND?; FEDERAL FUNDING, TRAVEL EXPENSES, BOOTY CALLS, AND YOU). All the adults in this book are So Cool, they swear constantly. It actually got to be tiresome and kind of lost its impact; it also jarred, like when the chief of staff swears out Alex, which, I don't know, seemed improbable and super unprofessional.

The narrative style of this book felt like FOMO (fear of missing out) made manifest: there's a panicky, frenetic pace that did seem resonant for early 20somethings, but at the same time, felt too aware, like the novel was admiring itself being cool and glamorous and passionate. (There's a dance club scene where all our hot youngins are writhing and being flirty and blissed out and uninhibited and instead of reading cathartic or moving or liberating, it really felt pretentious, imaginary, and artificial.)

I also found there to be a jarring, almost homophobic focus on the particular sex act of our young heroes; this book had f-bombs by the gallon, but weirdly, the characters kept making a point of being really vulgar when freaking out about Alex and Henry's relationship (like the aforementioned shockingly unprofessional chief of staff who goes on a rant about Alex "putting his dick in" Henry; she could have just as easily said they $#%ed, and it literally would have been f-bomb ten thousand and four and would have conveyed the exact same sense of shock and etc.).

This is probably my first New Adult read, and it felt like it -- a teen playing at grown up, and all the weird things that teens think adults do/think. And so much lack of maturity. And a weird mix of fangirl wish fulfillment and gritty reality that didn't blend for me.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

I am Mrs. Jesse James by Pat Wahler

I've spent so much time praying marriage would be an anchor for Jesse. Do you think he'll ever abandon his wandering life and stay home with you for good?

I won this book in a giveaway last fall and had been meaning to read it as soon as it arrived; and then my wife broke her ankle and we moved and I hadn't unpacked this book until a few weeks ago. It was a perfect read for both of my reading challenges this year -- Historical Fiction and Read Harder's challenge 9, "a book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads".

I will confess to some apprehension ahead of starting this book, though. In this current political climate, in which neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and domestic terrorists are getting mainstream platforming, I wasn't sure if we needed historical novels that offer empathetic views of people who were, and remained, problematic in their lifetimes. (I keep wondering if Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife would be so casually cavalier about Lindbergh's fascism if published now, for example.)


I am Mrs. Jesse James by Pat Wahler
Blank Slate Press, 2018
Personal copy
Historical Fiction and Read Harder


As far I know, Jesse James was unrepentant in his violent support of the Confederacy, proud of his service with William Quantrill, and committed to attacking anything that seemed to support the current government. He wouldn't make my list of historical figures who deserve a humanizing take.

Finishing this book hasn't helped me find an answer to that question. Wahler has written a lovely novel of a woman married to a troubled man; a novel that doesn't pretend to answer for him or make sense of his legacy. Instead, it focuses on this minister's daughter who fell in love with a handsome rogue who couldn't shake his penchant for danger. For good or for bad, Wahler skirts away from judging his political views (or even his military service) in favor of articulating why Zee would have left her stable family to marry her first cousin and trail after him for years.

A little over 300 pages, I rushed through this novel because Wahler manages to convey tension and excitement even though Zee knows virtually nothing about her husband's activities and exploits. Little is known about the real life Mrs. Jesse James, and the figure Wahler evokes felt plausible to me. Certainly sympathetic. A very grounded portrait that counters the outlandish legacy that Jesse James has. This young woman, struck by puppy love, grows into someone who tries to corral her husband into being the good parent she's sure he can be, but tragedy strikes.

This book surprised me and I appreciated that; I even felt a pang of outrage at James' untimely death since I liked our heroine so much. This is Wahler's debut novel, and I'm hopeful she'll pick another less well known figure or era to write about for her next release.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Those evenings, sitting on the living-room floor, laptops to our sides and an array of paper scattered across the floor, drinking wine and listening to music, were suffused with a warmth like nothing else I'd ever felt. I thought of it as the same feeling people get when planning their wedding. It felt enormous and essential and transitory: this papier-mâché beast that we were trying to carve into form.

Did I like this book? Or did I hate it? I'm going to split the difference and just say "yes".


Supper Club by Lara Williams
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2019
Digital review copy via Edelweiss


To stave off loneliness in college, our narrator Roberta takes up cooking. But this isn't one of those sumptuous, charming foodie novels that has your mouth watering; instead, there was something a little gross, slightly dank, and funky about the food. (Williams has our narrator observe that our appetites tip close toward revulsion.) There was an extreme focus on body that reminded me of Otessa Moshfegh and Siri Hustvedt; same with the myopic self focus of our main character.

Roberta comes under the thrall of a reckless friend, Stevie; their relationship is obsessive. With Stevie, Roberta's cooking transforms into the Supper Club, a feminist, living art project in which women eat until sick. Drugs, drinks, dancing -- they brazenly take up space. For Roberta, it's freeing.

The dinner clubs aren't the heart of the story, though; Roberta's challenges with space and relationships, her own self-worth and her future are at the center. I think I would have adored this book in my 20s; now, freshly 40, I was a little exhausted by the drama and our narrator's anxious ennui. But so much of Roberta's anxieties were resonant, familiar, although her deeds were foreign to me. (For all her worries about being boring and tame, she was pretty daring, I thought.)

There was this thing with weight gain and women taking up space that I'm not sure about; it felt discomforting and a tiny bit fetishistic, but as an obese woman I think my experience with space and body weight and eating is different than these characters struggling with 30 lbs.

This would be a brilliant book club read; I'm filled with questions after finishing, and I need someone(s) to chat it out with me.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Snakes by Sadie Jones

On bad days he missed her. He would sit on the train, desperate to be home, staring at his reflection and the other ghostly doppelgängers of his fellow travellers; their possible selves, and he would think of all the things he wanted, that he might never find.

If you want something that is a total beach read -- family dysfunction, a marriage challenged, tragic death, decaying French hotel -- but with a slightly literary style, this is that book. It's compulsively terribly irresistible.


The Snakes by Sadie Jones
Harper, 2019
Digital review copy from publisher


Our main character Bea comes from wealth (the level of which we don't discover until later in the book) but strives to live without any help from her family, whom she disdains (save for her beloved, troubled brother Alex). Her husband Dan came from poverty; he wants to be an artist but doesn't feel like they can afford for him to do so. On a whim, he pleads with Bea to take their savings and travel to Italy so they can discover themselves. Bea's only request is that they stop off at Alex's hotel in Burgundy.

Everything comes apart there. I hesitate to say more because my pleasure came from watching things unfold, guessing inaccurately at what would happen next. Secrets are revealed in small bursts, painful and raw; tension builds up as slowly as the heat over the day. Jones narrative style stars here: a little dreamy, a little pretty, drawn out in a way I can't help but admire. Her characters are maddeningly real and very tender; I want to throttle and hug almost every one.

There's a small political bent to the story: Bea's politics are liberal while her father's aren't, and so it felt a bit on the nose at times. Otherwise, everything in this story swept me up and held me hostage until the very end. (And ohemgee, That! Ending!)

Monday, July 8, 2019

Quick thoughts on Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Lying is a disgusting habit, and it flows through the conversations here like it's our own currency. The cultural disease here is what we should be curing...

I've been fascinated first, and horrified later, by Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, and couldn't fathom this book detailing anything I hadn't already read. HA. Carreyrou shares the details behind his fantastic Wall Street Journal reporting, including the shocking lengths Theranos took to silence him.


Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Knopf, 2018
Copy from public library
Read Harder challenge


Expanding on his exposé of Theranos, Carreyrou briefly details Elizabeth Holmes' background and her founding of Theranos. The sketchy details that mar the beginning of this endeavor are presented as they develop, and it makes this story even more astounding/horrifying. 

This book is very readable despite the science behind it (or science allegedly behind it, I suppose) although I was occasionally lost among the plethora of people to keep track of (since Holmes/Theranos fired people like it was going out of style). But Carreyrou makes real and human the people who were chewed up and spit out by the Homes/Theranos machine. (Including folks who are probably otherwise pretty unappealing.)

Missing from this was Holmes' voice -- Carreyrou asked to interview her for the book, and she declined -- and as a result, there is this huge hole of "what was she thinking?" that can't -- and doesn't -- get answered. It's frustrating because you just can't believe the decisions folks make in the face of what seems like damning evidence. Just hearing over and over how charismatic and compelling Holmes is/was doesn't convey the how/why.

I'm looking forward to (so to speak) Holmes' upcoming trial so that I can hear her thoughts, although I imagine it'll be pure BS. The portrait Carreyrou painted is of someone seriously, seriously *something* (because I don't know what armchair diagnoses folks are giving her) but whatever it is, it's intense. Even more chilling is a portrait of venture campaigns, the desperate desire to monetize health care even more, and the immense power -- through money, access, and/or reputation -- some people wield (and wield recklessly).

Another read I wouldn't have picked up were it not for Book Riot's Read Harder 2019 challenge; this covered my nonviolent true crime (but could also cover a book by a journalist).